The rise of UKIP and the ongoing challenge of Scottish nationalism may seem to be two very different phenomena, but, in a piece for the Spectator, Nick Cohen perceives an underlying pattern:
“Beyond party labels and nationalist sympathies is an ‘anti-politics mood’ that captures citizens of all beliefs and none (although ‘mood’ strikes me as too mild a world for the derision and the fury).”
Cohen argues that public contempt for our politicians is a reaction to their superficiality:
“Will Jennings of Southampton university pointed me to research which showed 80 per cent agreed with the proposition that ‘politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines’, with just 3 per cent of respondents disagreeing.”
What explains this shallowness? Very few of our leading politicians are genuinely thick. Most are highly educated. However, this is where Cohen locates the problem, pinning the blame on one degree course in particular – Oxford’s ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’, better known as PPE:
“A remarkable number of the politicians voters despised for their tricks learnt their politics at Oxford: David Cameron, William Hague, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Ed Davey, Danny Alexander. Matthew Hancock, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Rachel Reeves and Stuart Wood. There are more PPE graduates in the Commons than Old Etonians (35 to 20).”
It’s unfair to say that all of these politicians are “despised for their tricks” (the public would have to know who Stuart Wood actually is before despising him). Nevertheless, if you’re going to blame our universities for the poverty of our political culture then PPE is as good a place to start as any.
So, what’s the problem with it?
“PPE students… study three separate disciplines yoked into one course. In the first year, they must produce essays on John Stuart Mill one minute and parliament the next; on microeconomics, modern French history, Rousseau, Marx, formal logic, the US Congress and whether it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
“‘I always invited PPE-ists to my parties,’ said Madeline Grant, who left Oxford last year. ‘They could talk about anything. Whether they knew anything did not bother them in the slightest.’”
Three years of empty words, misconceived notions and dodgy numbers – but that’s politics, philosophy and economics for you. I’m not sure that choosing one of them to study in greater depth is going to make you a better politician – and, even if it did, one has to question whether the influence of academia on our politics matters much compared to the influence of the media.
In fact, if one were to trace the thin stream of shallowness back to its source, the three letters I would mark it with are BBC not PPE. I don’t single out the Corporation because its journalistic standards are particularly low, but because they’re not high enough.
The BBC, and especially Radio 4, should be setting a better example – and not just to other news outlets. As a broadcaster it is big enough not to play along with the absurdly accelerated 24 hour news cycle. For instance, it could refuse to feature policy pre-announcements and instead take the time necessary to report and hold politicians to account on the detail (should there be any). Furthermore, it could decline to interview politicians who don’t give proper answers or employ interviewers who don’t ask proper questions.
It would also be good to have more political interviews that didn’t mention the day’s news at all, but rather made an attempt to explore our politicians’ deeper thoughts and values. For instance, I’d like to know what Ed Miliband really thinks about Marxist theory – not as a game of spot-the-Commie – but as a genuine insight into his intellectual groundings. Or, to give another example, it might have saved a lot of confusion and disappointment if before proposing the ‘Big Society’, David Cameron had known he’d have to explain it properly.
That we so rarely get these sort of interviews doesn’t just reflect badly on our politicians, but on our national broadcaster too.